'Shape of Water': Guillermo del Toro on Why America Needs a Cold War Fairy Tale Today

The Oscar-nominated director also tells THR about the struggles of film financing and shares an update on his 'Pinnochio' adaptation.
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Richard Jenkins, Octavia Spencer, Sally Hawkins and director Guillermo del Toro

Thus far into the Venice Competition, no one has received longer or louder applause than Guillermo del Toro and his new romance fantasy film, The Shape of Water. Already tipped to be a top contender during awards season, the film has been a hit with critics and audience-goers alike.

Set during the Cold War, the movie centers on Elisa (Sally Hawkins) as a mute cleaning woman who falls in love with an aquatic monster (Doug Jones) that the U.S. government is holding captive. Government agents led by Strickland (Michael Shannon) believe the creature and its complex breathing system may hold the key to beating the Russians in the space race. Octavia Spencer and Richard Jenkins play Elisa's similarly lonesome friends who help her on her mission to protect the creature from the Strickland's increasingly malicious plans.

If fairy tales are generally written in times of great trouble, it's no accident that del Toro has made his latest film for 2017, a year he believes is in great need of a strong fairy tale. "The movie is an antidote to now," the director told The Hollywood Reporter. "It's so difficult to talk about love and not sound silly, but I do believe the antidote to what we are living, which is a time full of hatred and division, is this humanistic possibility."

Despite taking place during the Cold War, critics have noted that the film feels very much in the present day, and not just because Russia is again a new headline. "It's really a movie about now, and '62 is very important because when Americans talk about making America great again, I think they are dreaming of that era," he said. "1962 is a moment when America is believing in the future. Everything is about the future: Everything is about the space race, the cars have jet fins, the kitchen and house are all modern. The way the wife is presented is super pristine, and neighborhoods are modern. Everything is about the future."

Del Toro believes it's important to show that this dream was for only a select group of Americans and thus was impossible to achieve. "You have John F. Kennedy in the White House. It's Camelot. It's a golden moment in America, and then Kennedy is shot. They continue Vietnam and then comes the disillusionment," he said. "So I think it's the last moment when America believes in a dream that never quite crystallized. I think it's important to show that [despite] the promise that existed in 1962, racism, sexism, all of that is still happening now."

Del Toro makes his Venice comeback after his fellow three amigos found great Oscar success with Lido launches: Alfonso Cuaron with Gravity and Alejandro Inarritu with Birdman. But despite the external success, del Toro noted that things are not always as easy as they seem. "I can tell you our careers look one way from the outside and another way from the inside. It's been very hard, and nothing has happened easily," he explained. "Alfonso doing Gravity was incredibly difficult, and politically very difficult. I would love the myth that anything has been easy, but it's been really, really hard. Alfonso, many, many, many times in Gravity, he took technology and pushed it 10 years. The technology that was developed to do Gravity didn't exist. It was made by Alfonso and Emmanuel [Lubezki]."

For del Toro, every film is still a struggle to finance. "I never make it easy on myself. I wish I did. There is a gene in my DNA that makes things very complicated," he said. "When they say, 'What is your next movie about? It needs to be something really, really, really great.' I don't say, 'Well, it's an action movie about car thieves,' or 'It's a horror movie about a living doll.' It's never that simple. I need to say, 'Well, it's a Cold War fairy tale about a woman falling in love with a creature.' It's like, 'Oh, really? Good luck.' It's never easy, but I think the things that make them hard to finance or get off the ground are what makes them interesting. This movie took six years. Hellboy, which is as personal for me as anything else, eight years. Devil's Backbone, 10 years. So you wait for the unsuspecting financier to give you money."

Highly anticipated del Toro project Pinocchio has been in the works for over a decade. And although the puppets and designs are ready to go, he is still waiting for the financing. "It's Pinocchio the way [Carlo] Collodi wrote it but against the rise of Mussolini's fascism," he said. "So it's not easy. I tell you there is always one thing where I fuck it up."

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